Book by Vynnie Meli
Music and Lyrics by the Acappella Company
Directed by Lee Summers
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
It is difficult to imagine it getting any better: a group of talented a cappella singers (Broadway veterans and vocal band members), beatboxing, traditional American spiritual hymns, and a decent book about finding one’s voice and finding one’s way. All of that is featured in the new musical “Acappella” enjoying its weeklong run at the Pearl Theatre Company as part of the 2015 New York Musical Theatre Festival. Conceived by the show’s Executive Producer Greg Cooper, “Acappella” has been twelve years in the making and this NYMF run gives the creative team an opportunity to further develop what is already an entertaining experience about the journey of a young rock star from fame and fortune to the rediscovery of his faith in other and in self.
Jeremiah (played with a conflicted sweetness by Tyler Hardwick) gets the opportunity to tour with a popular “Boy Band” and leave his southern Georgia home. He also leaves his best friend Simon (played with a marvelous intensity by Anthony Chatmon II), his girlfriend Sarah (played with a powerful yet playful persona by Darilyn Castillo), his Aunt Leona (played by Cheryl Freeman who balances her character’s protectiveness with parental authority), and his church family and friends. While on tour, Jeremiah is inspired by the passion of a blues singer (Darryl Jovan Williams) and decides to return to his Georgia home during his brief furlough from the band.
“Acappella” deals with Jeremiah’s journey, his attempts to reunite with his best friend Simon and his girlfriend Sarah – who is now engaged to marry Simon, and with himself. The title has more importance than describing the lack of traditional instruments (the voice, after all, is an instrument): ‘a cappella’ serves as a rich trope (here an extended metaphor) for the “unaccompanied” state all of the characters find themselves in. Even the small town they live in is no longer “attached” to its roots despite the Festival to celebrate its Anniversary. It seems no one can truly find a deep connection to others without first having a deep connection to self. Jeremiah has to be set free (“Set Me Free”) before attempting to reconcile with his past and redesign his present and future.
All of the cast members have outstanding voices. Tyler Hardwick (Jeremiah) has a strong well-supported tenor which easily soars into a pleasing falsetto. Anthony Chatmon II has a similar pleasing upper vocal range that counterpoints powerfully in his duets with Mr. Hardwick. Mr. Chatmon is also a strong actor who brings authenticity and believability to his character Simon. Darilyn Castillo’s vocal range is impressive and is showcased in her solo “We Are One.” Broadway veteran Cheryl Freeman rocks the traditional “His Eyes Are on the Sparrow” with perfect phrasing and interpretation. One wishes the talented Miche Braden had been given a solo that allowed her to display her dramatic (as well as her comedic) vocal strengths. Garett Turner, Darryl Jovan Williams (the Blues Singer who brings the house down with his character’s “Jesus in the USA”), and Virginia Ann Woodruff bring honesty to their performances as vocalists and actors.
The Vocal Band supports the action of the musical throughout with songs from The Acappella Company’s rich canon. Stand out numbers are “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “Set Me Free” in Act One, and “No Excuse.” The beatboxing was a breath of freshness replacing the traditional musical band or orchestra. Bassist Janelle McDermoth shines. Lee Summers’ minimalist direction is appropriate for this musical and his staging is certainly engaging. Evan Feist’s arrangements are pleasing and supportive of the music and Leslie Dockery’s choreography showcases the movement talents of the cast. Kyu Shin’s scenic design and Sarah Johnston’s lighting design – again minimalist – are appropriate to the action of the musical.
As with any product in development, “Acappella” has room for growth. Its book needs some attention and certainly needs to flex its text to compete with the music. And that music, splendid as it is, needs to more uniformly connect with Ms. Meli’s book. Some numbers – albeit well performed and quite funny – do not move the plot forward. Among these are the numbers by Leona’s Group which provide comic relief and the opportunity to showcase the amazing talent of Miche Braden, Cheryl Freeman, and Virginia Ann Woodruff but do little to help the audience understand the conflicts of Jeremiah, Simon, and Sarah.
As it stands, “Acappella” is a moving testament to the strength of the human spirit, the importance of the human community, and the endurance and richness of personal faith. Clink on the link below and try to get tickets as soon as possible. The opening night performance was sold out.